Tuesday 29 September 2009

Church Establishment and Freedom

It’s interesting to see Denmark extolled by a thoughtful commentator as the freest country in Europe, most open to humane debate, with the world’s most atheist-friendly culture. Many believe you can’t pass go in becoming a free society until you have separated church and state. So how do they handle religion in Denmark? I turned to wikipedia:
The Danish National Church, Church of Denmark or Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark (Danish: Den Danske Folkekirke or Folkekirken, meaning '(The Danish) National Church' or 'People's Church') is a state church and is the largest Christian church in Denmark, including Greenland. It is a Lutheran body and is officially supported by the government, but membership is voluntary. The Queen heads the Church, with the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs, currently Birthe Rønn Hornbech, as the highest administrative authority of the Church. The Danish parliament, Folketinget, is the supreme legislative authority for the church. 82.1% of the population of Denmark and 90% of the ethnic Danes are members of the National Church.
So here’s a jolly paradox: Some of the freest and most open societies in the world do Church according to this Nordic pattern. Various surprising conclusions follow:
  1. There is an third way, although everyone laughs at it — an alternative to coercive theocracy, or the modernist option of simply privatising religion. None of us, surely, can be naive enough to think that just because it is private, the coercive might of US preachers is not power. The challenge for the US model is that privatised consumerist religion, far more accountable to its shareholders than the public, actually does rather well — a problem for atheists, but also for Christians who happen to believe, on gospel grounds, that the Church should be in the public service game, not the power game...

  2. Establishment nobbles the internal dynamics of a Church. If the legal bit is entirely publicly accountable, laid down by law, the small amount of cracking the whip that must be done is handled by lawyers, not clergy. This fact, limiting to some clergy no doubt, creates a broad space for the vast majority of them, most of the time, to get on in a generally disinterested way with the work of their calling, reading the Bible, praying, preaching, networking, exploring the richness of mystery, building local community, rather than playing power games, nobbling politicians, or suing the pants off each other about who owns the buildings. Illogical, but I’ve seen it done.

  3. Mature, implicit established Churches have a great opportunity to be blessedly free of paranoia. This creates a generous open space for learning, theological expression and creativity, along with all public discourse. The basic idea is that God’s truth can be trusted to look after itself. This benefits atheists, along with everyone else. Everyone, pragmatically, is free to believe whatever they find convincing, generally without the power dynamics of denominational corporate strategy and manipulation. The result is messy and sometimes illogical, but seldom abusive. Sure it is anomalous, to those who take denominationalism very seriously, that Queen Elizabeth is Anglican in England and Presbyterian in Scotland. Yet it keeps them all in their place, doesn't it, without threatening the identity of any of them, perhaps. Nobody is forced to believe anything. They don't have to be, in the way people have been compelled in formally atheist societies like the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Enver Hoxha’s Albania, Honecker’s East Germany...

  4. A non-Imperialistic Monarchy and Church, however laughable, has facilitated not only Britain’s retreat from Empire without collapse, but Sweden’s, and Denmark’s. Far from suppressing political freedom and security, such an order of church and state has generally underpinned it. With generally pragmatic and responsive established Churches, neither the UK nor the nordic countries have had a religious war in hundreds of years. As the US Empire crumbles, it’s interesting to see how much US religion operates in an increasingly shrill mode rather than asserting context, tradition and stability.
It may well be the days of this whole Northern European way of doing Church are numbered. If this is the case, there will loss as well as gain for everyone involved. I am not convinced that fewer Denmarks and more Irans, or Texases, is the answer. I’m sure some would love it, and it’s the way the culture’s going no doubt, but in a week bishops have been excoriated for uttering opinions about supermarkets, there’s something makes me queasy about the Church of England as the religious equivalent of Tesco’s.


Fr Mark said...

This is a very interesting post, Bishop Alan. There are two other points you could have added to it which immediately spring to mind.

The first is that, while Sunday attendance is very low here in Denmark (as also in Sweden and among the indigenous community in England), there is here in Denmark a very much higher sense of broad attachment to the Church from the wider community than in the UK. This is seen in the incredibly high proportion of children baptised and confirmed, and of Christmass, wedding and funeral attendance. This strong residual attachment to the Church means that the people running it are much less social weirdos than their equivalents in England, and small extreme groups (they do have one or two homophobic hard Conservative Evagelicals in Jutland) are laughed at as the nut-jobs they are by the good sense of the majority. In other words, there is a proper sense of th Church's rootedness in the whole society and of duty towards the whole of society. That's why the gay issue hasn't been a big deal for the Church of Denmark: if a certain number of Danes are in same-sex partnerships, then of course the Church is seen as rightly there for them as much as any other Danes. This logic has, clearly, yet to be applied in the C of E.

The second salient point is that bishops are seen quite differently here. They are elected by the people, and they come clearly under the Minister of Religion. Therefore they do not see themselves as big beasts in the jungle in the manner of C of E bishops, and as such are without the disastrous pyschological and people management problems so common on the English bench.

Having said all that, the downside of Danish Lutheranism has to be the turgid approach to liturgy!

Andrew Brown said...

It's nice to have two links to my piece but shouldn't one of them go to a comment? Yours, "thoughtful commentator";

ps, want to warm this up for cif belief?

Sir Watkin said...

H.M is not Presbyterian in Scotland. She is patron of the Church of Scotland, but not a member of it.

Sir Watkin said...

"simmering angry correspondence in the Church Times about Queen Victoria's church attendance habits at Balmoral, which were not to the taste of the paper in those days..."

Indeed. She thus placed herself out of communion with the Church of England, and forfeited her throne (which she had no right to anyway).

The irony greatly amused this Jacobite heart.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Fr Mark, many thanks for your sharp observations, from close experience of Church life in Denmark I wot, as much as from the heart. I especially appreciate your incisive challenge about bishops seeing themselves as big beasts in the jungle in England — talk about our calling's particular snares. Point taken. I have experienced some level of aridity in worship (in Germany rather than Denmark,) but I can imagine the phenomenon you mean. Thanks, so much.

Andrew, it could be done when you're doing something on the subject. I'd be interested to see something on the changes brought about by disestablishment in Sweden (2000). I have to say when I last asked that question to a group at a prästmöte in Växjö in 2005, the clear consensus in the room was "not a lot!" (yet?). I wonder, thinking out loud, if Christopher Meakin from Uppsala could be inveigled into producing something? email me if you've got something on the go sometime?

Sir Watkin, my apologies, Sir. I didn't realise this, but I do remember as a research student encountering a simmering angry correspondence in the Church Times about Queen Victoria's churchgoing habits at Balmoral, which were not to the taste of the paper in those days...

Christum, whilst critical of some aspects of the USA, I'd rather be put down as a critical friend than anti-American. The First Amendment model, to which there was understandably no historical alternative, is indeed cherished, as you say, but some people over there are far from convinced it has been achieved yet, even after 200 years of trying.

Fred is a colourful character, but the serious nightmare, as it appears to me, is the frightening power of the religious right over the past few years. Many over there and over here would are baffled and take exception to it. All I was saying is that nothing in the first amendment geometry, notional or practical, has prevented it arising and punching way way beyond its weight in the political process in a way that would be unthinkable in Europe.

I'm sorry, I simply did not say the C of E was free from either imperialism or paranoia. Please read what I did say, which was that there was opportunity to be freer of paranoia in an established Church — I might be wrong, but consider please the energy that has gone into, say Falls Church Virginia litigation. I did not say this opportunity was always or even often taken. As for imperialism, I was commenting on the role of the classic pattern of Church/State geometry in stabilising societies transitioning out of empire, as Sweden did in the eighteenth century and the UK has had largely to do in the 20th Century.

Thnks for your link.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating comments - and added comments too, thank you. It might be interesting to also ponder on what has happened here right alongside England - in Wales, where disestablishment happened over eighty years ago. There are some different dynamics caused by the strong history of revivals but as a working Parish Priest who crossed the border five years ago there is much that feels familiar. In general people can indeed 'get on with their calling' and although the Bishop's don't have the same parliamentary links they play, arguably, a higher profile role in public life (though this may in part be due to the existence of a vibrant and not especially hostile provincial media here).
Adrian C

Anonymous said...

Concerning anti-Americanism, the post paints an extremely narrow and negative view of religion in the US. You use the terms 'privatised' and 'consumerist' to describe it, where I believe that you are describing the incorporation of capitalist ideology into religion. I've been to plenty of places of worship in the States that are not like this. To this you add a picture of an extremist, as if to suggest that this is normative. The rather gleeful image given of the 'US Empire' crumbling compounds with the treatment of US religion for me to label the post as anti-American. Such a stance is rather popular among us English. 'Critical friend' cannot be validated from what is written, which makes that thought subjective to say the least.

To say that the First Amendment hasn't been yet achieved is a bit of woolly thinking. It exists and plays a vibrant role in US civil society. Free religion, free speech and free press means that things you don't agree with get worshipped, said and printed. Also, I think it's important the French laïcité is a very different model of modern secularism. The US religious right is not a pretty sight, but they exist because of the freedoms of the First Amendment. I think that issue requires deeper discussion.

You did suggest that the Church of England has been historically 'non-imperialistic' with that 'facilitating retreat from empire' stuff. You mention Greenland fairly early on in the post: the Danish National Church thus operates within an imperial framework. The missionary activity of the C of E was often part of British imperialism, and the Anglican Communion imagines itself as a religious Commonwealth with its ever British head.

I discussed this with a Danish colleague today, and she pointed out how Danish clergy used their state position to get involved in the lives of non-members. Non-church weddings are minimalist, and the National Church is the only alternative. Changing your name or registering a birth has to be done through your parish priest, as does arranging a funeral or burial even if it's non-religious. It's very difficult to be the only Dane in your class who doesn't get confirmed; especially when you get so many presents and a big party. Most Danes use the church as they would a post office, making it a civil functionary rather than a faith community on the whole.

According to my colleague, not supporting the church makes life really difficult in Denmark, so 'atheist-friendly' it isn't. Also, Denmark really isn't much more free than Britain. It is content with its homogeneous social democracy.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for an alternative view, and your friend's Danish experience, so different from that of the first comment above. I said nothing at all about capitalist ideology - although I think you are raising an interesting possibility here, but it's nothing to do with my original point.

Look, all expressions of religion in any country include the good, the bad and the ugly. I suspect we would agree about where Pastor Fred belongs in that spectrum. For many years I have worshiped regularly (in an English sense — three or four times a year!) in US Churches, of various shades, many of them wonderful places. My point was this. For historically valid reasons, the US got religion out of the front door in the First Amendment. Pastor Fred, and especially the notice in his hands, is a distinctive example of religion trying to bash its way back into the house through the back door, but this time on his own terms. Establishment involves, inherently, a rational/legal form of accountability. Bodies like Christian Voice are entirely free to operate in the UK, as they should be, but they do so in the context of general public accountability for the Church, reflected in most of the Churches, and this is but one reason Pastor Fred people are far more marginal over here than over there.

I never said, as you seem to imply, that the first amendment didn't exist. What is at issue is the extent to which it is being applied, and how. Free religion, free speech and a free press do actually exist outside the US; perhaps even in Britain? I agree that French läicité is a different model from the US one. In the same way as there are various models of establishment around the place, there are various models of disestablishment, of course.

As to your suggestion that US hegemony is not crumbling, I'd personally like to think so, and I do find it more credible with the current administration, but still suspect that the big global forces to which Kevin Phillips drew attention in books like "American theocracy" are ultimately inescapable.

Which brings me back to a plug for the day conference in Oxford on 24 October (http://affirmingcatholicism.org.uk/pages/default.asp?action=showEvents&pID=187&tbl=eventsLocation&u=eventID) which looks as though it will be an interesting opportunity to explore what the current Engosh pattern of Establishment actually is today, and what it could be.

Sir Watkin said...

What Adrian C. says about the Welsh bishops is probably true. I agree that the Welsh media is part of the explanation. Another is the dearth of non-conformist leaders of stature.

If people like Howell Harris were around today they would play a large part in public life, but they aren't. Not that the Welsh bishops are of any great stature either, but in a hierarchical church that doesn't matter so much: the office counts for more than the man.

However, Wales today has much more of a post-Christian feel to it than England - a milder version of what has happened in Ireland (no scandals, but a similar, dramatic collapse). This is all the more notable when one considers the higher levels of religious observance historically, and its impact on Welsh society.

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